My lunchbox never included peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. Instead, it included liverwurst sandwiches or roast beef on rye with cornichons and mustard or veal bologna. A healthy serving of vegetables from the farmers’ market, like carrots, cucumbers, sweet peppers or radishes and seasonal fruits like apples, tangerines or cherries were requisite accompaniments, and delicious ones at that, but not as coveted as the sweet treats from the bakery my mom always snuck into my bag.
My robustly flavored lunches emitted a certain odor that elicited a few crinkled noses and dubious comments from my classmates. I was painfully aware of my pb&j deficiency, but was always consoled after taking the first bite of unctuous meat or crunching on the sweetest carrots at the lunch table. Hunger was never a concern. I was lucky. When it came to food, I wanted for nothing.
Varying degrees of food insecurity and hunger impact a vast number of people in the United States and the youngest victims experience some of the most profound and lasting effects of food insecurity, both physical and cognitive. Although difficult to measure, the USDA Economic Research Service estimates 50.1 million people live in food insecure households, 16.7 million of whom are children. The Life Sciences Research Office (LSRO) of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology defines household food security using the following three-tiered scale:
- Food security — Access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum: (1) the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and (2) an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (e.g., without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies).
- Food insecurity — Limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.
- Hunger — The uneasy or painful sensation caused by a lack of food. The recurrent and involuntary lack of access to food. Hunger may produce malnutrition over time…Hunger…is a potential, although not necessary, consequence of food insecurity.
Ironically, those who have the least food to eat are at the highest risk for obesity and other food-related illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Food insecurity jeopardizes children’s health and development by increasing their overall history of hospitalization and poor health, and they are two-thirds more likely to be at risk for developmental delays.
The number of Americans living in food insecure households, whether severe or moderate, has soared since 2008 and is showing no signs of abatement. Despite a slowly decreasing national unemployment rate in recent years, more Americans than ever, nearly 47 million, have signed up for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and many more are eligible, but may not realize it. The employment versus SNAP discrepancy is due in part to job growth at the very low end of the income spectrum. In other words, there has been an increase in low paying jobs, rather than jobs that offer a living wage. Eligibility for SNAP is based on income, not whether an individual or family is living at or below the poverty line, although an overwhelming number are. It is also alarming to note that many recipients have college degrees and live in middle-class neighborhoods. The face of food stamps today is an unexpected one.
The decision to accept government assistance is not an easy one to make as it unfortunately comes laden with stigma. Many people make the assumption that federal assistance puts a strain on the economy when in fact, food stamps actually boost the economy. A USDA study found that every $5 of SNAP benefits generates $9 of economic activity, meaning an increase in gross domestic product. Recipients are hardly undeserving and the money they get is spent immediately, resulting in an immediate economic stimulus.
Since the early 2000s, food stamps have become easier to apply for and instead of receiving a book of coupons, participants get an electronic balance transfer debit card, making transactions simpler and more discrete and making it harder to abuse the system. Despite its catchy new name and ease of use, food stamps still carry a stigma that I hope will wane with more open conversations about hunger and food insecurity, and policy changes and legislation to help the working poor put food on the table.
Tuscan Kale Soup
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, or other neutral flavored oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, minced
5 teaspoons tomato paste
1 small cabbage, halved and thinly sliced
1 bunch kale, stemmed and chopped
3 leeks, sliced (optional)
3 zucchini, cut into ½-inch rounds
Small handful fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
4 cups vegetable broth, chicken broth or water
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups (about 1 pound) cooked or soaked white beans, like cannellini
Grated Parmesan for garnish (optional)
In a large soup pot over medium heat, add olive oil and sauté the garlic, onion, celery, carrot, and rosemary for 15 minutes. Add the remaining 10 ingredients and simmer covered for 1½ hours. Remove from heat and using an immersion blender or standing blender, puree ¼ of the soup to create a thick broth. Garnish individual bowls with grated Parmesan.